Montana Eases Environmental Restrictions, Focuses on Jobs

Published April 11, 2011

The Montana Senate, in a move designed to address the state’s double-digit unemployment rate, has voted 27-23 to relax some state environmental rules. The legislation is aimed at decreasing regulatory burdens on businesses and opening the doors to more economic development in the state.
Focus on Creating Jobs
“I would be more than willing to bet that most Republican members of the Montana state legislature would tell you that Senate Bill 317 … is a jobs bill and not an environmental bill,” said Phil Drake, editor of Montana Watchdog, a Helena-based online news service. “The Montana state legislature has listed jobs as its No. 1 priority for this session.”
The bill does not reduce environmental standards already in place, and it will not lead to air or water pollution, Republican supporters say. Instead, they argue, it’s a means of spurring development of some of the state’s rich natural resources industries and thus providing a much-needed boost to jobs and state revenues.
“They say the logging industry, which thrived in [the northwest] is nonexistent,” Drake said. “And officials point to the fact that oil and gas jobs are going to neighboring states rather than Montana. Some lawmakers believe the environmental laws have put a stranglehold on jobs. And in their debate arsenal, they usually point out that Montana is near the bottom nationwide for personal income.”
Jobs vs. Environment?
Opponents claim the bill will allow rampant and uncontrolled natural resource development leading to environmental degradation in the years to come.
“I am afraid that what we have in this bill will cause us to suffer down the road,” Sen. Bob Hawks, a Bozeman Democrat, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “In the disguise of trying to encourage economic development, we have sacrificed our environmental surroundings to the point where we have a net loss long term.”
Federal Restrictions Remain
Donald Leal, director of research and a senior research fellow with the Property and Environment Research Center in Montana, says the Montana economy faces a double burden of state and federal restrictions.
“If the Montana Senate focused only on removing or revising regulatory barriers to promote higher levels of development, there is still a barrier to wealth creation from energy and environmental assets,” said Leal. “More than 30 percent of Montana’s surface lands are in the hands of the federal government. On these lands, energy development versus no development is addressed through the political process, in which the outcome is all or nothing when it comes to development. This precludes other wealth-creating options.”
Promising Outlook
Drake predicted the Senate bill will ultimately become law, alleviating the state’s environmental restrictions.
“I believe the bill … will pass, if for no other reason [than] that there is an overwhelming Republican majority in the legislature and SB 317 would hopefully bring good-paying jobs to a state sorely needing them,” Drake said.

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) writes from northern Virginia.